Racist and Less Racist Criticisms of Obama
SDS quotes James Taranto:
The only difference is that now they are claiming it is racist to criticize the president of the United States.In our view, if Americans think race relations are getting worse, it is because they are slow to recognize the utter cynicism behind the politically motivated charges of “racism.” America elects a black president, and now we’re racist because we fault him for being a lousy president? That’s laughable—and laughter, not hand-wringing, is the appropriate response.”
Perhaps I can clear a few things up for Mr. Taranto and SDS. The problem isn’t that all criticism of Obama is inherently racist. The problem is that racist criticism of Obama is (shocker of shockers) racist. And the not-necessarily-race-motivated criticism sometimes looks kind of racist as well.
First, I’m sure SDS and Taranto would admit that there has been a vocal and explicitly racist thread running through some of the “criticism.” Whatever motivates the guys (like New York gubernatorial hopeful Carl Paladino) forwarding the racist emails or holding the more wretched Tea Party signs, their actions are atrocious. I suspect SDS, Mr. Taranto, and I all agree on this. We might disagree on how hard the non-racists in the Tea Party ought to scrub to remove the bile on their image.
Second, we have the less explicit stuff. We have the belief that Obama is a “Kenyan anti-colonialist.” We have the birthers. We have the people who think Obama is a secret Muslim. We have the people who have determined that Obama is inadequately patriotic. We have a whole series of criticism that Obama is “not one of us.” (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, know what I mean?) There are a whole slew of “criticisms” of Obama that have nothing to do with anything he’s actually done and a whole lot to do with to do with delegitimizing the President on the grounds that he’s somehow different due to some nebulous and intangible quality. It walks like racism. It quacks like racism. I’ll call it racism.
Third we have the criticism calculated to pour fuel on the “not-one-of-us” fire. We have the guy criticizing Obama for apologizing to Guatemala for infecting its people with syphilis during horrific human experimentation. Can you argue that the President of the United States should never apologize for anything ever? Sure. I disagree—but you can definitely argue it. But when people talk about Obama and his “apology tour” they aren’t speaking into a vacuum.
Suppose SDS's wife was eating a donut. Suppose he said, “You shouldn't eat that donut. Donuts contain a lot of empty calories, which can lead to weight gain and, ultimately, heart disease.” Is this a valid criticism of her dietary choices? Everything he said was true, right? But he still deserves a black eye for that comment, right? Even if he's genuinely concerned about heart disease, he’s phrased his criticism in a way that is inextricably intertwined with a long history of body-shaming. Critics from the right that stoke the irrational fear of the Other/Obama know or should know what they’re doing.
Fourth, we have the criticism that is so ambiguous or stupid that people reasonably assume something else is going on. Like the death panel paranoia. Or the “Get your government hands off my medicare!” Or the snickering about the teleprompter. The criticisms seem so absolutely nonsensical that we can’t believe that any intelligent person actually believes them. You’re upset that Obama is delivering prepared remarks from a teleprompter? You’d rather he spoke from notes? Or do you think he shouldn’t prepare remarks at all? This whole often-repeated critique is so transparently ludicrous that we’re sometimes inclined to assume that its masking something more sinister? Maybe the implication is that Obama is an actor or a puppet controlled by some more sinister force? To believe that sort of conspiracy theory, you’d need to be unbelievably stupid. Or maybe racist. So we can go with racism.
In legal discrimination cases, it’s rare to find an actual smoking gun. Generally the plaintiff needs to prove that she wasn’t fired for one of the common reasons (like the elimination of a position or being woefully unqualified). After that, the defendant gets to show why the plantiff was actually fired and the plaintiff gets to try to prove that the “reason” was a pretext. If the defendant can’t explain why somebody was fired for a legitimate reason, the court can infer an illegitimate reason.
Fifth, there’s a category of policy proposals that place a disproportionate and improper burden on certain minorities. SDS and Taranto aren’t going agree that a policy that places a disproportionate burden on minorities, rolls back efforts to correct historical inequities, or increases systemic inequality is a “racist” policy. For now, it’s enough to agree that reasonable people could reasonably call this sort of policy proposal racist.
Criticising Obama is not inherently racist. Nobody seriously thinks it is. But a lot of the criticism has been:
- Explicitly racist
- Implicitly Racist
- Drenched in themes to appeal to the implicitly racist critics
- So patently stupid that it’s easiest (and most charitable) to simply attribute it to racism.
- Promote policies that would heighten or exacerbate existing racial inequality
This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been legitimate criticism of Obama. There’s a small amount of wheat in the giant ocean of chaff.
If Taranto wants to say that his criticism isn’t racist, he can certainly say that. But if he’s claiming that he and all the noisiest of the critics are on the same page, he ought to acknowledge that there’s a whole lot of racism on that page.